Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 2 October 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Achievements of Irish Presidency and EU Justice and Home Affairs Council: Discussion with Minister for Justice and Equality
The purpose of this part of the meeting is to discuss with the Minister the achievements of the Irish Presidency in the area of justice and home affairs, including an update on the data protection package and the upcoming Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting.
I ask all present to ensure that mobile telephones are switched off completely. Silent mode is not sufficient as this interferes with the recording system and it is not fair to the staff. Briefing notes have been circulated to members. I welcome the Minister and his officials. I invite the Minister to make his opening contribution and this will be followed by a question and answer session.
I thank Deputy Niall Collins for the entertainment while I was shaving this morning. At least we are not debating the Seanad referendum at this meeting.
I am grateful to the joint committee for the invitation to brief members on both the recent Irish Presidency of the EU from a justice and home affairs perspective and on the matters that have been tabled for discussion at the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council, which will take place in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuesday of next week. I will be attending the Council meeting.
I will begin with a brief recap of the Irish Presidency with regard to justice and home affairs matters. I am pleased to report that the Presidency proved to be a great success. We managed to achieve our targets and, indeed, to exceed them in some cases.
I chaired a total of three meetings of the Council. An informal meeting of the Council was held in Dublin Castle in January and two formal Council meetings were held in March and June. As committee members will know, the overall theme of the Presidency was stability, jobs and growth within justice and home affairs with a sub-theme of justice for growth, a theme which is continuing to be developed by the incoming Presidency.
In this context, one of the top priorities for the Irish Presidency was advancing the data protection reform package. This comprises a regulation on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data, and a directive on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data for the purposes of prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of criminal offences or the execution of criminal penalties.
The Lisbon treaty contains a new legal base for EU data protection rules, while the Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrines protection of personal data as a fundamental right. Substantial progress was made, particularly on the data protection regulation, during the Presidency. An updated draft of Chapters 1 to 4 was published and general support secured for certain fundamental concepts and key aspects which will be an excellent basis for future work. In view of its importance, I arranged for the documents dealing with data protection that were submitted to the June Council meeting to be placed before both Houses on 25 June. Work is continuing on this issue under the Lithuanian Presidency and it is included in the agenda for the October Justice and Home Affairs Council for a further orientation debate. I will return to this matter when I outline the Council agenda for next week.
Data protection was not our only priority. In fact, the Irish Presidency had successes across the whole spectrum of justice and home affairs. The regulation providing for mutual recognition of protection measures in civil matters was adopted, which means that civil protection measures such as barring orders can still be enforced where a victim moves from one member state to another. This is an important element of the victims package. In regard to human trafficking, the Presidency worked closely with the Commission on a user-friendly information package on the rights of victims of trafficking in the Union. Enhancing fundamental rights was a key focus of the Irish Presidency. The Council agreed to give further consideration to safeguarding fundamental rights and countering extreme forms of intolerance, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia.
The internal security of the Union will always be a priority for any Presidency and Ireland maintained the fight against organised crime and terrorism. The March Council contained an extensive debate on the threat to internal security from the Sahel and Maghreb regions of Africa, with a particular focus on terrorism originating in Mali. The June Council focused on EU citizens travelling to third countries as foreign fighters, including those who have gone to Syria to engage in the civil war there. The Presidency obtained the agreement of the Council to revise its recruitment and radicalisation strategy.
In March 2013, the first serious and organised crime threat assessment was published by Europol. Based on that, the Irish Presidency secured agreement on the crime priorities for Europol for the next four-year policy cycle against organised crime. The Presidency also agreed the next four-year action plan on tackling the drugs problem.
Syria was a constant issue throughout the Presidency. In January, at the informal Council, I invited the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to participate in an important debate on the escalating humanitarian problem. That problem relates not only to the internal difficulties in Syria, but also the enormous refugee problem which continues to escalate. In terms of security, the issue of EU citizens heading to Syria as foreign fighters or jihadists became a major concern. In recent weeks we have seen that the problem is not confined to Syria.
In regard to asylum and migration, the Irish Presidency secured agreement on the two remaining elements of the common European asylum system. These two elements were the asylum procedures directive, which provides minimum standards on procedures for granting and withdrawing refugee status, and the Eurodac regulation, which relates to the system for comparing fingerprints of asylum seekers. The Presidency also reached a provisional agreement with the European Parliament on the regulation establishing a European border surveillance system, known as Eurosur. In terms of visa facilitation and readmission agreements, new agreements were signed with Moldova, Ukraine, Cape Verde and Armenia, and significant progress was made on an EU-Russia visa facilitation agreement.
A significant agreement was reached on the Schengen governance package. This package of two measures will enhance the security and stability of the border-free arrangements for participating states. The agreement also enabled progress on five files in the home affairs area in respect of which negotiations had been suspended by the European Parliament since June 2012. The Irish Presidency also oversaw the successful migration to the second generation of the Schengen information system, better known as SIS II.
In 2010, the European Commission estimated that more than €600 million of fraud was committed against the EU's financial interests. The Irish Presidency reached agreement on a general approach to a draft directive against fraud which aims to strengthen the legal arrangements already in place to protect the EU against fraud, corruption or money laundering.
At the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting in June, political guidelines were agreed on the draft regulation on insolvency proceedings. These guidelines will inform the continuing negotiations on the regulation, which seeks to reform the existing EU insolvency law to reflect the fact that businesses increasingly have operations in more than one member state. Work was progressed on the European account preservation order, a cross-border debt recovery measure in civil and commercial matters. Finally, an agreement was reached with the European Parliament on the access to a lawyer dossier, which is part of the criminal justice procedural rights package. This is not the complete list of achievements during the course of the Irish Presidency but merely the most important highlights. I arranged for a note to be circulated to committee members outlining in more detail the issues addressed during the Presidency.
Turning to next week's Justice and Home Affairs Council agenda, I propose to concentrate on the main issues of substance for Ireland and provide a brief background on them. In addition, I will provide an indication of Ireland's position on the relevant issues, where applicable. I arranged last week for members of the committee to be furnished with information notes on agenda items for the Council. Members should note that, in some cases, the Presidency has yet to advise which particular matters are to be discussed under each agenda item. There is a possibility, in other words, that some of the specific issues might change prior to the meeting.
The provisional agenda does not present any major difficulties for Ireland. This is the first formal Justice and Home Affairs Council of the Lithuanian Presidency and will take place over two half-day meetings instead of the normal two full days. This might explain the shorter agenda than usual. The Presidency is using the two other half days for joint meetings of EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers with their counterparts from the Eastern Partnership countries. These meetings will take place outside of the Council framework. The Council will begin on Monday morning in the Justice formation and the first substantive issue for discussion is data protection. As I mentioned earlier, data protection was a priority during our Presidency and significant progress was achieved in that area. Discussions in the working group have now moved to the one-stop shop facility and Ireland is actively engaged in the ongoing work.
The one-stop shop principle is one of the central planks of the Commission proposal for a general data protection regulation. Where the processing of personal data by a controller or processor in the Union takes place in more than one member state, one single supervisory authority would be competent for monitoring the activities of the controller or processor throughout the Union. The idea here is to provide legal certainty and reduce administrative burdens for data controllers and processors. The competent authority providing the one-stop shop should be the supervisory authority of the member state in which the controller or processor has its main establishment. It is expected that the Council will focus on the implementation of this measure. There is an issue as to whether the supervisory authority in the state of establishment should have the exclusive jurisdiction to supervise all the processing activities of a company which has a presence in a number of member states and decide exclusively on all measures, including penalties. Ireland is supportive of the one-stop shop concept and will work with other member states to address any difficulties with its implementation. In addressing this issue, it is of course important to ensure that the data protection rights of individuals are protected under the revised arrangements.
The next item for discussion is a directive on the protection of the euro. Ireland has exercised its option under Article 3 of Protocol 21 to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to participate in this measure. This measure contains a requirement for member states to criminalise the making, import, export and passing of counterfeit currency as well as the possession of instruments for making currency. It is expected that the JHA Council will agree to a general approach based on a new revised text.
The next two proposals to be discussed were launched as a package by the Commission in July. The first of these is the proposed European public prosecutor's office and the second is the recast Eurojust proposal. This will be the first opportunity for Council to discuss these proposals. The first envisages an office headed by a European public prosecutor and assisted by four deputy prosecutors and a delegated prosecutor from each member state. The function of the office will be to prosecute crimes against the financial interests of the Union. The second proposal provides a new legal framework for Eurojust post-Lisbon. It aims to maintain the elements of Eurojust that have worked well and to streamline its structures in line with the Lisbon Treaty. It will also provide support for the new European public prosecutor's office. Ireland has until 22 November to exercise our options to participate in either or both of these measures under Protocol 21.
I am currently considering the approach Ireland should take to these proposals.
The Home Affairs Council will take place on Tuesday afternoon next. The first issue for discussion is to agree a temporary seat for the European Police College, CEPOL. The committee may be aware that the Commission separately published a proposal to merge CEPOL with Europol, which is based in The Hague. This proposed merger was rejected by ministers at the June Council meeting. At the same time, the UK has notified the Council that it is closing its police college at Bramshill, England. Bramshill is the current home of CEPOL and the UK has given the latter notice to vacate the premises by March 2014. Pending a permanent solution to the future governance arrangements for Europol and CEPOL, it is essential that CEPOL finds a new temporary home. I have informed member states that Ireland is willing to host CEPOL in the Garda training college in Templemore. Members will know that this is an excellent facility which, I believe, would more than adequately meet the needs of CEPOL. I should add that there is competition from six other member states to host CEPOL. I cannot predict the outcome with regard to this particular matter.
The next issue to be discussed is free movement. In April 2013, four Ministers from Germany, Austria, Netherlands and the UK wrote to the Council to highlight their concerns about the potential abuse of free movement rights by EU nationals seeking to avail of social welfare systems in certain member states. The Council discussed this matter in June during Ireland's Presidency and invited the Commission to examine the issues highlighted by the four member states concerned. The Council agreed that the Commission's free movement group would gather evidence and present interim findings at the October Council meeting.
The next item will be an update on the latest developments on the Syrian refugee crisis and the EU’s response to same. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people have lost their lives and that more than 6 million have been displaced. At least 2 million of those displaced are refugees currently living outside Syria, predominantly located in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. There are approximately 40,000 Syrian refugees in Europe at present and the majority of them are living in Sweden and Germany. Conditions in refugee camps in the Middle East states to which I refer, including Turkey, are deteriorating and EU Ministers will consider what further action can be taken.
The final substantive item on the agenda is information from the Commission on the first annual relocation forum. Some EU member states have been disproportionately affected by the arrival of asylum seekers. The relocation programme is aimed at sharing the burden that arises in this context. The forum took place on 25 September and the Commission will report on progress made at that meeting.
I appreciate that I have addressed a large number of issues, some of which are particularly complex. I will be happy to address any questions members may wish to pose. Members may be interested in focusing on the meeting being held on Monday and Tuesday next. They may wish to voice queries or offer suggestions in respect of the issues which are due to be discussed. I will be happy to hear their views in that regard.
Last week, Dr. Gavin Barrett came before the committee to advise us on the opt-out by Britain from a range of justice measures. Will the Minister outline the perspective of the Government on this matter? Does it harbour any concerns about the knock-on effects of what is proposed? Is it engaging with the British authorities on the matter? Dr. Barrett provided a comprehensive overview. The committee has a number of concerns in respect of this matter.
The second issue I wish to raise relates to Syrian refugees. Lebanon has a population of approximately 4 million and some 500,000 Palestinian refugees have already taken shelter there. Those refugees have no ability to work; they have been stuck in limbo for decades and find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. There is then the very delicate balance of religions which is reflected in the structure of the Government of Lebanon. When one considers the influx of new refugees from Syria, one can see that Lebanon is literally a powder keg. The feedback I have received indicates that the Lebanese Government is concerned about the level of international resources being allocated. I have quite an amount of knowledge of the situation in Beirut and I am aware that Palestinian refugees there have been sheltering their counterparts from Syria. Some families are living in single room accommodation with no sanitation or water supply and they are being obliged to pay huge amounts of rent. Whatever savings these people have are being spent in no time. Their plight is desperate and it has brought what was already a very delicate political situation in Lebanon to the point of exploding. If that happens, it will be disastrous for everyone.
There is also a delicate religious balance in Jordan. NGOs operating in the area have indicated that they are not at all satisfied with the international response and that they are not receiving the support they require in the context of the resources required to allow them to assist the refugees. Has the Minister received feedback from NGOs regarding the desperate nature of the situation? Is he of the view that there is an urgency within the EU in respect of this matter? I understand that Lebanon has already taken in approximately half of its own population in refugees, which is incredible. What can be done about this matter?
I will deal first with the British opt-out. I have engaged in various discussions with my counterparts in the UK, including the Home Secretary, Ms Theresa May MP, the Secretary of State for Justice and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on this matter. I had discussions with them when the British Government first announced it was going to pursue this issue. That was prior to the House of Lords producing a very detailed and comprehensive report on the opt-out. This is a report of some importance. However, it is a matter for the British Government to determine the level of importance it is going to attach to it. The British have confirmed in recent weeks their intention to proceed down this route. The opt-out impacts on just in excess of 130 instruments that are in place between the different EU member states. The British have indicated that they wish to continue to participate in approximately 32 to 33 instruments.
At a very early stage, I emphasised to all my ministerial colleagues in the UK this State's substantial concerns about the route they were proposing to travel. We emphasised the importance - not just within an EU context but also in the context of the island of Ireland and relationships between Ireland and the UK - that the UK should continue to be party to and a full participant in a broad range of instruments that are of importance. One of the blindingly obvious examples in this regard is the European arrest warrant, which has facilitated the transfer - from North to South and vice versa - of those who face serious criminal charges not just in respect of terrorism but also in the context of serious crime. The arrest warrant is also a very important instrument between this jurisdiction and England and Scotland. The statistics show that the highest proportion of arrest warrants issued in respect of these islands have been between the UK and Ireland and Ireland, the UK and Northern Ireland.
The position with regard to the direction this matter is taking is quite complicated. The British negotiated the opt-out and the proposal is that they are going to opt out of the more than 130 instruments to which I refer. The treaty into which they entered provides the facility to opt out. However, the question of how Britain will continue to be, or how it will opt back in to being, party to instruments with which it wishes to continue to be involved is a matter of some legal complexity. This issue has been the subject of some discussion among other member states.
There has not been clarity yet from the British as to how they will deal with this matter in the context of the Commission. The Commission's view on this appears to be that the British and the UK are parties to these instruments and that there is no procedure in place to provide, for example, that if at midnight they opt out of all 130 plus instruments, at one second past midnight they would be instantly party to the ones to which they retain. It may be that some other member states are less than enthused about them opting out of other ones to which they do not intend to remain party. There are some instruments they no longer wish to participate in. Some of them are out of date and a number of them will not matter in practical terms, but the position remains uncertain. It is a cause of concern to me as Minister for Justice and Equality that we do not have a clear path. This is an issue that will travel into 2014. I know from discussions with other European Justice and Home Affairs Ministers that they have a concern that there is a lack of clarity as to the roadmap for dealing with this. I am afraid that is as much as I can say about it.
It is very much in the interests of this State and of our relationship with the UK and in dealing with issues of great seriousness in the justice area that the UK continues to participate in the important instruments that facilitate close co-operation in the exchange of information on criminal activity, and close co-operation in dealing with the European arrest warrant to ensure those who are charged with serious offences are brought to justice, not only on both sides of this island but in the UK and in Ireland. We do not want to revert to the complex extradition legislation that was previously in place in the 1960s. It created a range of issues around the concept of a political offence which, for those engaged in terrorism, was seen as some protection to them from coming before the courts in circumstances that were appropriate where death and destruction was being caused on this island. This remains an issue of great seriousness to us. It is an issue on which I have had continuing engagements with British Ministers. It is a matter that the Taoiseach has also raised with Prime Minister Cameron. I expect discussion on that issue to continue in the coming weeks and months both between us and the UK and within the family of European Justice and Home Affairs Ministers with a view to seeing what solution can be provided to deal with the issues in this area. I have said to our UK counterparts that I am anxious that we would be of what assistance we can to ensure the UK continues to participate in the instruments that are of huge importance to both our islands.
I suggest that members read the report published by the House of Lords which details a series of concerns about the route that is being travelled in this context. I have had discussions with the Minister for Justice, David Ford, in Northern Ireland. He and I discussed this also at an early stage. I am sure that Deputy Mac Lochlainn is aware that the Minister has concerns arising out of this and I think they are shared by all in the Administration in Northern Ireland. I apologise for talking at such length on this issue-----
-----but this is the first occasion we have had an opportunity to raise it in this committee and it has been one of great importance for some time.
At European Justice and Home Affairs meetings, bilateral meetings between individual Ministers are often held. This issue has been the subject of bilateral discussions between me and my UK counterparts and the Secretary of State for Justice, Mr. Grayling, and I will have a bilateral or side meeting to discuss the issue again in Luxembourg at a meeting that will take place early next week.
Turning to the issue of Syria, this is an issue in which I have very substantial interest wearing both my hats as Minister for Justice and Equality and Minister for Defence. When I was in the Middle East in March last visiting our troops in southern Lebanon and on the Golan Heights in Israel, I also met the then Lebanese defence Minister and had discussions with him about the refugee crisis and how it was impacting on Lebanon. I received extensive briefings from our own people. As Deputy Mac Lochlainn will know, we already had a small group engaged with UNDOF in Syria until the larger group of the Defence Forces arrived. The full group of 115 troops are now located on the Golan Heights on the Syria side or the neutral zone going through Damascus. They arrived this weekend and I know all members of the committee would wish them well in the very important job they are doing.
I agree with much of what Deputy Mac Lochlainn said, other than any criticism of the European Union. It has provided the greatest financial contribution of any group anywhere in the world towards assisting with supports for the refugees, assisting the UNHCR and the NGOs. Across the European Union there has been a very substantial transfer of funding. We have contributed in the difficult circumstances in which this State is in €10.8 million, approximately €1 million to NGOs and the remainder to the UNHCR in dealing with refugees.
The situation in Lebanon is difficult, complex and it is not an exaggeration to say it is on a knife edge. There have been sectarian divisions in Lebanon for many years. The government is or was representative of the different religious and political groupings in the Lebanon. Elections were to be held in Lebanon originally and the objective was to hold them in June, but they had to be postponed and could not take place. There is a series of issues which create great concerns with regard to Lebanon. In discussions I had with the Lebanese defence Minister we went into this in great detail in March and some of our mutual concerns have proved to be correct. I hope some of our greater concerns do not prove to be correct. It is estimated that approximately 30,000 members of Hezbollah are engaged in Syria at this stage. There is one estimate that has been given internationally. That number may be exaggerated and may be smaller, but from being, if I may put it this way, surreptitiously involved in the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah is now quite open about its engagement and involvement. It is on the side of President Assad. Hezbollah represents the Shi'a community in Lebanon, the Alawite group is represented by President Assad and there is a religious connectivity between the two. The opposition to President Assad is substantially Sunni. It is estimated there are more than 1,000 different groupings engaged in that confrontation and they are divided among themselves. They are not only confronting the Assad forces in Syria, they are, on occasions, at war with each other, between different groups of jihadists and al-Qaeda-type groupings to secular groupings. The Kurds are trying to stay out of the conflict and the Christian community are caught up somewhere in the middle of the conflict and are very fearful for their future in the context of the approach being taken by some of the extreme Muslim fundamentalists groupings. The Christian groups tend to identify with President Assad because they see him as less of a threat than the fundamentalists. Both sides have committed atrocities and I believe both sides have committed war crimes. There are parts of Syria that are destroyed. It will take many years to rebuild that country. As to whether it will be rebuilt as a country or it will fragment in its entirety, no one knows the answer to that.
Thousands of refugees are pouring out of that country every week. From memory, it is estimated that in the region of 900,000 refugees are in the Lebanon, 500,000 in Turkey, in the region of 350,000 in Jordan and when I last checked there were 180,000 in Egypt and a similar number in Iraq, although the numbers going to Iraq seem to be increasing. There is much connectivity between the Lebanon and Syria. Families have taken in people from Syria. There are various camps in Syria. There are Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and some of them have been subject to attack with lives being lost. Some refugees have now migrated to Lebanon.
One of the tragedies of the Middle East is that no matter how one looks at the situation, it is extraordinary that in Lebanon and Syria one has the relations of the Palestinians who were disrupted by the conflict which took place in 1948, who essentially are being kept in what are described as refugee camps but they are really closed towns or cities. People are not living in tents in the way we might imagine but in Arab countries they have never been allowed to integrate into the countries to which they have moved. One now has third and fourth generation refugees. In every other part of the world where one had a refugee crisis during the 1940s, where people could not go back to their countries of origin, they were at least allowed to integrate. That is part of the problem and part of the legacy of the Middle East which should perhaps be discussed by the committee on another day.
What we have seen in Lebanon is that there have been explosions in the Shi'a controlled section of Beirut. There has been loss of life. We have had the same in a part of Lebanon that is substantially Sunni where there has been retaliation. If matters further deteriorate in Lebanon there is a serious risk that the situation could collapse into civil war again. Those in positions of political leadership are striving very hard to avoid that but it is a substantial concern to this State and the international community. What is happening in Syria is an enormous humanitarian tragedy. A total of 4 million displaced Syrians are still within Syria, as opposed to the numbers that have migrated out of Syria and are in refugee camps. Tragically, there is no sign of an end to the conflict. The issue of chemical weapons has been addressed in recent days by the UN but it does not bring us any closer to conflict resolution. It is difficult to see, because of the divisions between the different groupings, how a conflict resolution in the short term is going to be achieved.
To return to the meeting in Luxembourg, we will again consider the extent of the refugee crisis. There has been a substantial increase in numbers since June when we last discussed the matter. We will again look at what additional steps the EU could take to be of help. We will also look at the issue of foreign fighters. There is genuine concern in that regard across the European Union. A number of individuals from this country are now fighting in the civil war in Syria. Some of them are known to be fighting with what are known as jihadist groups. The numbers from Ireland are small compared with some other European Union countries but there is genuine issue and concern surrounding how they will conduct themselves when they return either to this State or other European Union countries. We saw an horrific act of terrorism only recently in England when a young soldier - a drummer - lost his life. Those who have left other European countries to fight on the side of some of the fundamentalist groups in Syria might pose serious security threats within the European Union. It is an issue of which we are conscious and that we are addressing.
I will make one final point on the issue. We could discuss it at great length. It might be worthwhile for the committee to have a meeting in which we deal generally with concerns in this area. There are great concerns as the destabilisation of Syria poses risks to Lebanon but there are an enormous number of refugees in Jordan, which at the moment seems to be stable. I thought members might be interested to know that it is my intention to go to the Middle East in the last week in November. A changeover is taking place in southern Lebanon. UNIFIL is a joint Irish-Finnish grouping in southern Lebanon. We have been the lead country in that grouping and the Finns are taking over the lead on 26 November. Our troops are out there and I am going to visit the new contingent to replace the ones who went in March. I will be there for the hand-over. I am exploring at the moment the possibility of visiting Jordan, as well as meeting with my counterpart Minister in Beirut in Lebanon so as to get fully briefed on issues relating to both the defence side of my work, security issues and the UNIFIL engagements. At all stages we must be conscious of any threats that are posed to our troops. A destabilisation in Lebanon could create a further destabilisation and problems in the southern Lebanon area, which has remained fairly stable. I will also visit Israel and will get briefings on how things are going in the Golan and other issues relating to the region.
I thank the Minister and his officials for attending this morning. In terms of CEPOL, I note that the merger was rejected by the Ministers. Could the Minister elaborate on the reason for the rejection of the merger? If we are successful in having CEPOL located in the Garda training college in Templemore, what benefit will it be to us?
The main concern of Ministers in rejecting it was not to confuse what I describe as operational matters with educational matters. Europol facilitates the exchange of information on matters relating to serious crime. There was concern that if one incorporated Europol and CEPOL together, first, that a substantial portion of funding would be located in Europol rather the CEPOL. The educational function of CEPOL is very important in the context of police forces across Europe co-operating with each other and learning the most modern techniques to approach different types of issues that relate to criminality across the European Union. European Justice and Home Affairs Ministers were not convinced there was any added value to incorporating the two bodies as they have separate and distinct functions and roles. The view was that the distinct functions and roles should be kept separate. That was the predominant argument. A very small number of member states thought there was some added value in their incorporation.
From an Irish perspective, we were not entirely convinced that there would be financial concerns and issues. In the context of the Presidency, we had to maintain neutrality on the issue. I would not have been unduly concerned if the bodies had been incorporated into the one body because they could still have two separate and distinct functions. There was an overwhelming majority view of European Justice Ministers not to proceed with the amalgamation. CEPOL has been located in the United Kingdom for some years but it must vacate by March 2014. We have an excellent Garda college in Templemore that has state-of-the-art facilities. The advantage of CEPOL being here is that it would add an extra tier or level to the education role played by Templemore college. Deputy Niall Collins likes to focus on the issue of recruits, which happily we will have in 2014, but Templemore does a lot of work at the moment with continuing education. A substantial number of courses are attended by current members of the Garda in Templemore. CEPOL would bring added value.
I believe it would enhance the reputation of this State in a very positive way. We have the facilities. We can do it at minimal cost in the context of the European Union. CEPOL would be funded with European Union funding. There would not be any major additional cost to this State in its locating there. CEPOL has approximately 35 permanent personnel engaged in the education functions.
I do not want to heighten expectations around this issue. I felt we should propose CEPOL. I am conscious that while we are a full member of the European Union, our location is somewhat on the periphery in the context of the different locations on offer. Some member states may be of the view that CEPOL should be located at a more compatible distance from the various member states than we may be from some member states. However, it has been located in England and there is no particular reason it could not locate in Ireland. I emphasise the excellence of our airports and our transport system and if we are successful in locating it there, apart from CEPOL's 35 permanent staff, there would be a regular influx of members of police forces from around Europe to participate in courses there.
I do not want to exaggerate this, but it would be a boost, if only a minor one, for the town of Templemore in bringing some additional business to it. However, this is not based on business. It is based on the fact that we have an excellent state-of-the-art policing college that can readily facilitate CEPOL, literally instantly, without major difficulty arising in respect of that relocation, and as it will have to relocate from England, we are fairly close by. I will have to wait and see. I have communicated with all of my colleagues in the European Union on this seeking their support but I am sure that in respect of the six other locations, my colleagues in those countries have equally communicated with colleagues. We will get an insight into it. It is likely the decision will be made next week but it is always possible it could be further postponed. The urgency is because the staff must vacate their current location by next March.
I have two questions. First, on the right to be forgotten, the documentation states that it depends on the technology and how they can physically go about it. That has arisen frequently here. Does that mean it is being diluted in some way or is the idea that data can be deleted? We all know people put things on the Internet which they regret subsequently and want to remove, but is it physically possible to do that? Is the Internet, which is such a huge area now, out of everyone's control?
Second, I came across the free movement of individuals in the data and the concern of four other countries about that. Will the Minister comment on whether the Commission is talking about putting some restrictions on the free movement of individuals? I note other countries are saying that somebody can be convicted here of an offence and asked to leave the territory but can return almost immediately. Where is all of that heading? It is a serious issue.
I will take the last question first and come back to the right to be forgotten. One of the central kernels of the European Union is freedom of movement across the European Union, which is hugely important. In the original Treaty of Rome in 1958 the focus was to provide for a Common Market across the original six member states with freedom of movement between those states, and matters have developed from that point. Providing for freedom of movement is a central article of the Rome treaty and much of what has happened since - the new states joining, the arrangements I mentioned earlier in regard to Schengen and all the other matters - are the outward product of ensuring freedom of movement in the manner that accords with the philosophy of establishing the European Union.
An issue has arisen in some member states, and whether it is a real issue of substance or more driven by domestic electoral demands in individual countries and presentations that were seen to be politically opportune by the Governments raising them is an open question. I will not comment on that, but a case was made without any substantive supporting evidence, and I emphasise that. It was suggested that within the European Union some individuals were welfare shopping, if I can put it that way, and abusing the concept of freedom of movement so that they could make claims for social welfare in states that had superior social welfare systems. The states that made those cases did not produce substantive evidence.
There is a danger in this. The reality across the European Union is based on a premise and a philosophy that within the Union all nationals of each member state are free to travel to and locate in other member states and seek work there in the current economic climate. In this State and elsewhere we have a range of individuals from other European Union states who came to this country, for example, during the so-called boom years whom we needed here to meet our employment needs. They held down jobs for many years and contributed to our social welfare system but as we headed through the period from 2008 to 2010 they lost their jobs and found themselves in difficulties. Many of them settled here, have families here and, based on the contributions they made to our social welfare funds, in circumstances in which the economic difficulties we experienced have affected their employment, are entitled to claim social welfare in the same way as many Irish nationals who find themselves unemployed in England or in other European countries having held down jobs in those countries.
Our European colleagues need to take care in what they say in travelling this particular route to ensure they do not unnecessarily stimulate prejudice or a reaction from sections of the community who may not fully understand the complexities of the issue. This issue was discussed among European Union Ministers. Some Ministers expressed concerns about the issue being raised in the manner in which it had been raised, and I share those views, but if four member states raise an issue and express a concern they have an entitlement to have that concern considered. As a consequence, the request was that a report be done to examine any evidence in that context, and it is no more than that. It is very important that the benefits of movement, which are enormous in human, commercial and business and tourism terms - and this country benefits substantially from that - are not turned on their heads by a suggestion that there is a greater problem in this area than exists. It is unfortunate that it was raised in the manner in which it was raised in the absence of the presentation of substantial, substantive evidence to back up what was said. However, it will be a further discussion at the meeting to be held next week and I suspect it is an issue to which we will return.
I do not know the answer to that question. I know the work was being done on it. I will make a small confession to members which I am sure they will understand. In so far as any reports may be available it will be my practice on the weekend before the meeting to read them. I am not aware of a report yet coming to us. It may be that I will have a report by the weekend.
I will deal briefly with the right to be forgotten. As a policy issue we support the right to be forgotten.
Moreover, the official in my Department who has been working on both the data protection regulation and the directive did extraordinary and Trojan work during the European Presidency. We made substantial advances and probably made greater progress than we had anticipated. There are issues in respect of the right to be forgotten that are being teased out. There are the obligations the regulation seeks to impose to ensure a right to be forgotten can be respected and that the necessary action is taken to remove material. In the context of dealing with the web, there is, of course, the enormous difficulty that material can be reproduced and transferred. There are some concerns that, for example, a particular web-based operation may do its very best to comply, but something unfindable may re-emerge and such operations should not be unfairly penalised as a consequence. It is an area of some complexity, but continuing work is taking place on it, to which the State is contributing.
On the common European asylum system, I welcome the agreement on a couple of elements thereof. How is Ireland faring in the direct provision of accommodation for asylum seekers in comparison with other member states? What impact will that decision make on the processing times for applications, some of which can be quite considerable and lengthy? Will these decisions have a positive impact on both issues?
A point I should make on the right to be forgotten is that in some contexts, people have no right to be forgotten. I was talking specifically about the issues raised by the Chairman. Everyone knows about young people in this context and whatever about the present day, in the early days of the web some older people certainly put up all sorts of unwise stuff that they thought they were communicating to one friend and which they did not expect to go viral or global and appear all over the world. While a lot of it is innocent, it could have an impact on their reputation. However, there is no right to be forgotten for some. No one suggests, for example, that there is such a right for an individual who has been rightly reported on websites or social media as having been convicted of serious criminal offences such as serious sexual offences. Similarly, if it is reported that a lawyer or a doctor has been struck off and this truly has happened, no one is suggesting there is a right to be forgotten in that regard. There are issues in this regard that add to it.
My colleague will understand I cannot go into the detail of legal proceedings before the courts. A court case, with which I am very familiar, is being taken that raises a number of issues regarding those seeking asylum or a right to remain and the direct provision system. That case is before the High Court and ultimately I assume it will be heard and a judgment delivered. I will be obliged to consider the judgment that is delivered and its implications. However, it is fair to make a number of points. While I will be corrected if I am wrong, the number in the direct provision system is approximately 4,500. I can provide a note for the Deputy giving the precise number. One reason people are in direct provision accommodation for so long is we have individuals who come here seeking asylum. They are denied asylum after they have gone through the initial and appeal processes. They then apply for leave to remain, which is an entirely separate application. They may then apply to stay on other humanitarian grounds and during the course of all the different stages of the process, they bring judicial reviews challenging the original decisions made. As a result, one may have a judicial review challenging the refusal of asylum and then if a person is not granted leave to remain, one may have a judicial review challenging this. There are hundreds of judicial review cases pending before the courts. In many cases, ultimately, the judicial reviews will not be successful, but they involve individuals who, I am afraid, in reality have come here not as genuine political refugees but as economic migrants. I understand this and do not wish to be taken as criticising anyone for bringing a court application. They are doing what they can to challenge the system to facilitate their remaining in Ireland.
Moreover, I am not saying every single person in direct provision accommodation is in that position because there are people who may only have arrived in the past 12 to 18 months and whose cases are being heard, dealt with and addressed. However, a proportion are in that position. Nevertheless, they are entitled to have their legal rights respected. They are entitled to make whatever court applications are required. However, it means that they are in direct provision accommodation for too long and we do not have an alternative because if they simply were allowed to go out into the general community and obtain employment after a short time, it would result in thousands of individuals who are economic migrants and not really individuals properly seeking asylum coming to Ireland. In circumstances in which more than 400,000 people are unemployed, the Government cannot allow its immigration and visa rules to be abused in that way. I do not want this to be taken that I am accusing anyone in direct provision accommodation as abusing anything. I am simply stating Ireland has rules and regulations with which people must comply. This is the reason many are in direct provision accommodation for so long.
There is a dysfunction in the legislation in this area. As all Deputies on all sides of the House are aware, I am anxious to get on with the enactment of the new legislation which will allow all applications required, be they for asylum, leave to remain or any other application that could result in an individual being entitled to stay in Ireland, to be heard in a single procedure instead of having a procedure that goes on for years. I am anxious to have legislation and a procedure that will deal with issues in a legal manner and that will both protect the rights of those making such applications and curtail unnecessary judicial review applications. That legislation is being delayed simply because of the burden on the Attorney General's office in furthering other legislation prioritised by the troika. I hope to see the legislation by 2014; I hope it will be enacted and that it will tackle a lot of the problems in this area.
As for how Ireland's direct provision system compares with those in other countries, the accommodation provided compares very well with what happens in quite a number of other European Union countries. I am sure there are some member states that do better than Ireland and have a different system, but certainly, in the context of providing a roof over people's heads, providing food and clothing, education for the children and health and medical supports, we provide all of these. I do not suggest it is an ideal system within which I would recommend anyone live. I am stating that in the context of the State providing this system, it is being done in accordance with meeting the obligations imposed on us under the United Nations convention. I also must wait and see what perspectives the courts might take in the context of the case pending and should an issue arise from these court proceedings that must be addressed, I will, of course, address it.
The joint committee might be interested in visiting some of the centres at some point, if that can be arranged through the departmental officials. I have two further questions. What is the position on Ireland's participation in the Schengen Information System, SIS, II? Does a conflict arise between the free movement of personal data within the Union in the internal market and the right of the individual to have his or her data protected?
On the Schengen system, there is an issue of funding to facilitate our participation in the exchange of information. That is a domestic issue. I apologise, but I missed the second question.
I referred to the conflict between the internal market's requirement for the free movement of data and the right of an individual to have his or her data protected. I note that this has been mentioned in one proposed change to the regulations.
It will not come up at this meeting next week. That discussion on data protection will be confined to one-stop shop issues but the working group of officials who are dealing with both the regulation and the directive will be continuing to visit that issue.
On the human trafficking element of the package that was discussed, I welcome the package that was produced for victims of trafficking. My concerns relate to the identification of the victims before they can avail of that. Was there any discussion on how we are doing in terms of identifying victims of trafficking and anything that we could be doing to improve that here?
This is an issue that we are constantly looking at.
One of the difficulties in this area is when there has been Garda involvement. I am focusing on the prostitution area where the suggestion is the women have been trafficked for prostitution. Where that allegation has been made, we have had occasions when women who have made that allegation and who indicated they would co-operate with the Garda, have 24 hours later simply disappeared and left the country, not in circumstances where they are required to be in the company of others because we have a system to provide them with accommodation and refuge which allows them stay here to co-operate with the Garda. One of the difficulties in the area of prostitution in this country in the context of human trafficking is there has been little by way of prosecution. While there is considerable concern in this area and there is a section within the Department that focuses on this, the Garda is conscious of this area, and we are currently reviewing our approaches in the light of international reports. The bringing of prosecutions is extremely difficult because on occasions women who allege they have been trafficked simply do not co-operate and choose to leave the country.
My concerns would be around, for example, even labour trafficking or child trafficking. There have been cases taken where the anti-trafficking unit has been successful in identifying children who are trafficked for the purposes of pornography or whatever.
We are continuing to do what we can. The Garda is conscious of this issue. There is a continuing dialogue between the Garda and us, and within the Department. We are preparing a new strategy to address the issue of trafficking, which no doubt we will bring to the committee.
We have covered a great deal and we could cover much more. There is a significant amount of work done and a significant amount of work to be done in the future. I wish the Minister well with the meeting next week.
The committee will suspend until 2 p.m. when we will commence public hearings on the heads of the gambling control Bill.